The speedboat to Ambergris Caye is like a space-time transporter. One minute you’re on the dockside in Belize City, a bustling, shabby, old-school Caribbean township still boasting mainly wooden buildings as well as open drains.
Then, after the rather glamorous boat ride (costing the equivalent of just £9) you arrive – face sprayed, hair horizontal – on a film set for a movie called Gringolandia. It’s pretty and quaint, but the golf carts, faux-rustic signage and American accents tell you you’re on a resort island.
But because San Pedro – Ambergris Caye’s main settlement – has been a diving base for at least three decades, it has evolved a decent ecosystem of accommodation. I found a smart, simple B&B, booked three nights and asked how I could get out to the reef. That, after all, was the real reason for coming offshore, and I wanted to get started right away.
A 15-minute ride on a launch took me to a patch of bath-warm sea known as Shark Ray Alley. Part of the Hol Chan Marine Preserve, it’s populated by nurse sharks, which were soon coming close, nipping at the tuna the pilot was feeding them. Stingrays and a couple of shy turtles appeared too, clearly used to these daily visits. There were about eight of us on the snorkelling excursion and the skipper of the boat said it was fine to paddle out over the reef.
I joined two more swimmers and we were soon on top of a glowing city of coral, sliced by deep ravines and thronged by fish of every hue. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is often ranked third in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea Reef, but it stands out for its manatees and American marine crocodiles, as well as its spectacular atolls and formations such as the Great Blue Hole.
We pottered around some starfish and urchins, spied a barracuda and lost sense of time or distance. Then I saw a ray that was missing a semi-circle of wing; it had obviously been part of a large shark’s lunch. The deep waters on the eastern drop-offs of the reef are known for their reef, tiger and bull sharks. We looked at each other underwater, did that professional thumbs thing – though ours were pointing down – and swam back to our taxi home.
Ambergris Caye is definitely soft Central America. Everyone is very polite and San Pedro has lots of excellent seafood restaurants and beach bars. It also provides pleasant surprises, including giant blue crabs in the mangroves, basilisks and iguanas on the rocks, and many warbler and heron species. I cycled north to see some Mayan sites, which came as a surprise; a local told me pre- Columbian fishermen and farmers used Bacalar Chico, the name of the Mayan area, as early as AD 300.
With such an abundance of attractions, it’s no wonder many people are happy to do their diving here and go straight home. But Belize surely shouldn’t be reduced to its reef and cayes. I decided to make a coastal journey south to explore the mainland.
Great Blue Hole, Belize (Shutterstock)
A two-lane highway runs parallel to the coast from Belize City, the former capital, to Punta Gorda in the south. It’s paved, has light traffic and affords travellers a window on modern Belize: fruit trees, shacks, grassland, scrub, occasional villages, the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Dangriga, the first major town, looked like a forgotten colonial outpost, full of gimcrack clapperboard houses raised on stilts above fetid marshland. Most roads outside the centre were dust and dirt.
The town is mainly used by visitors to get to a chain of less wellknown cayes, but I opted to stay put and meet the locals. It wasn’t difficult.
Out on a spit of land known as Y-Not Beach I stumbled upon Austin Rodríguez, a gent in his 80s who makes traditional drums. Around his workshop were skeins of sheep, deer and goat hide and aromatic hardwood timber. He sat in the shade of banana trees and palms, hewing out a solid block of cedar. “It takes me just one day to finish a small drum, and they go all around the world,” he said. “I only make one kind of drum – all you see here are Garifuna drums.”
He then smiled sort-of sadly. “I don’t do this for money. I want to teach the kids to value their culture, to appreciate the past. But they don’t want to know any more.”
The Garifuna culture Austin is fighting to preserve is a unique mix of traditions derived from South American Caribs and Arawaks and Kriols (Creole descendants of slaves and British loggers). Unlike most of the region’s other groups of African descent, the Garifuna were never slaves. In fact, they were forcibly exiled from the island of St Vincent to keep them away from slaving society.
After years of being marginalised, the Garifuna were given official recognition by UNESCO in 2001. Dangriga is the cultural capital of the Garifuna, with a small museum on its outskirts that takes visitors through the story of strife, exile, survival and pride. But drumming is the heartbeat of the culture and on one lucky outing I came across a large group of Garifuna kids practising their drumming and dancing for a competition the following day.
Three kids beat out a rhythm that combined a pulse on a tall conga and a more complicated pattern on two smaller drums. Tony Gómez, the dance troupe’s teacher, explained: “The dancer leads so the drummers have to keep their eye focused on his feet. The dancer is there to contain the spirit of the dance.”
Dangriga was a strange place. I couldn’t connect the Taiwanese supermarkets, the yellow, black and white Garifuna flags and the Spanish-speaking market vendors. The pace of life was soporifically slow. I adopted a local snack bar as my refuge. King Burger was staffed by half a dozen women and served up a mean chicken and chips – the yin-yang of Caribbean cuisine. It operated a BYO policy so I took along a couple of bottles of iced Belikin beer and had a “gud, gud taim” doing nothing much at all.
Mayan ruins, Belize (Shutterstock)
An hour south by bus and I landed in a small and shabby paradise: Hopkins, another Garifuna stronghold but one on which the sun seemed to shine more strongly. Here expats, beach bums, Mayans and divers mixed with locals, and everybody said “Gud maanin!” as they passed each other on the main drag. Just off the southern end of this long sandy road was my shackchalet, at a rustic resort called Jungle Jeanie’s by the Sea.
Jeanie was a Canadian retiree who settled here in the 1990s with her husband John. They had absorbed the local vibe, always taking time to chat during the hot afternoons, and slowly producing breakfasts and dinners for the dozen-or-so guests.
I drank a fair bit of rum in Hopkins and ate some delicious Garifuna-influenced cuisine. While the cassava bread tasted like a big communion wafer with the goodness sucked out, the snapper and coconut-sauce stews, the yam mash and the plantain dumplings were excellent. I swam and walked it off on long hikes along the beach and rides on the resort’s free bikes.
One afternoon I joined a small group going on a catamaran excursion up the Sittee River. Where a caye trip costs upwards of BZ$200 per person (about £62), this three-hour outing was just BZ$25 (£8), and it was a serene alternative to the clamorous diving scene.
As the boat chugged up the winding, mirror-calm watercourse, we saw kingfishers flash by and little blue herons and an osprey perched on the banks. An iguana played dead and then suddenly dropped into the water with a splash. In the fading light, the old-growth saltwater mangrove and taller canopy trees glowed lime green, while the river turned an oily black.
Jeanie and John served us rum punches and snacks, and played ‘Moon River’ and other old favourites on a ghettoblaster while the pilot hooked a few small fish.
I hitched a lift south with a friendly Belizean couple from Belmopan. Through the window, the landscape gradually changed from level coastal plains of banana and orange tree plantations to grass-covered undulating hills and then more jagged ridges and small mountains clad in forest. Hummingbird, Belize (Shutterstock)
In the west I caught glimpses of higher peaks, marking the Belize-Guatemala border. Rob Hirons, owner of The Lodge at Big Falls, didn’t do hard sell. “Belize is a swamp on the edge of Central America,” he said, while we enjoyed a beer at his bar. “That’s why the Spanish never took control of this country. That’s why I’m here. I cashed in my overvalued house in Hampshire and bought this cheap land on the banks of the river.”
But it was the lack of development that moved Rob and his American wife Marta to make Big Falls their home. “Having concreted over the whole of the east coast of the US, the Americans seem to want to keep going south,” he said, referring to the suburban horror that is the Mexican Mayan Riviera, just north of Belize.
In the tall rosewood and mahogany trees around my lovely chalet, I spotted a black and white owl, a possum, several skittish hummingbirds and gregarious flycatchers. The lodge’s garden is also busy with bromeliads and orchids, including the black orchid – the national flower of Belize.
Though there is no ‘big fall’ around here, old British military maps use that name for the area, perhaps an allusion to the river’s movement from high jungle to lowland forest and swamp. It is this transitional quality that fills The Lodge at Big Falls with diverse flora and fauna.
Rob drove me out to the tiny coastal village of Barranco, where we met Joseph Palacio, a respected anthropologist and defender of Garifuna rights. He took me to see the grave of Andy Palacio, the Garifuna musician whose output was being compared with Paul Simon and the Buena Vista Social Club before his untimely death in 2008.
Over an early morning stout we chatted about Belize’s restive history, involving British colonials, US confederates, banana planters and the region’s Mayans. “We Garifuna are root, the Mayans are grain,” said Joseph. “They are perceived as more agricultural than the black Belizeans. We are even more discriminated against than them, but we can learn from the Maya.”
Along the main road and the dusty tracks around the lodge I’d seen Mayan-style houses. One of Rob’s excellent guides, Steven Choco, drove me to see the Lubaantun ruin. There were about six of us in the group and we were the only people at the site when we arrived at 11am.
Lubaantun means ‘place of fallen stones’, and is what all the famous sites of Guatemala and Mexico would probably look like without the artful reconstruction and conservation work that has taken place. There were still noticeable pyramidal forms and ballcourts, however, and a certain magic to the ruinous state. Trees were bursting through the tops of some stairways and giant blue morpho butterflies flickered around the cacao trees and jippi jappa palms – from which Steven plucked fruit and edible leaves for us to taste.
Driving from Lubaantun, the road became unpaved and we saw villages of thatched huts that had no electric power. Rice and frijoles – the beans Mayans mix with everything – were spread out to dry along the roadside. The locals still wore indigenous dress. Steven showed us how we could recognise Quiché Mayans by their blue skirts and Mopan Mayans by their brightly coloured dresses.
We went for a swim at the Río Blanco, where a beautiful waterfall tumbled into a cool pool. Swimming into the powerful currents meant you could plough away at your crawl stroke as hard as anything and not move an inch. We lunched up there and watched the local lads drink rum and jump off the falls.
I was not wrong about the space-time transit. There are two Belizes: the box-ticking one that packages offshore hotels, expensive diving ‘experiences’ and fancy food – with a monkey sighting thrown in – exclusively for wealthy foreigners; and the real one, which involves meeting locals, moving around slowly and sometimes comfortably, and exploring the multi-layered cultures that make the country so different from all of its neighbours. Central America is generally cheap for travellers but Belize, while poor, is expensive. Food and drink prices are reasonably low – typically £8 for lunch, a little more for dinner; a bottle of beer costs £1.80. Travelling by public transport is very cheap and ultra-budget travellers can find cheap homestays. Budget hostels and dormitories can cost as little as £15 per night.
The latter country is bigger, older, deeper and, happily, cheaper. If you’re planning to spend some time in this edgy swampland, you’re already one step ahead of the conquistadores; just don’t spend all your time underwater.
American Airlines flies London-Belize City via Miami or Dallas. Fares starts from around £549; passengers must overnight in the US on the way out.
James Bus Line operates a frequent service, aboard former American schoolbuses, between Belize City and Punta Gorda; one-way fares cost from BZ$22 (£7). It stops in towns en route, and also makes request stops along the main road; it fills up quickly.
Ritchie’s Bus Service operates a slightly less frequent service and only goes as far south as Placencia. Local boats and scheduled services offer transfers to the northern cayes. For the cayes off Hopkins and Dangriga, book through your hotel. Main image: Belize paradise island (Shutterstock)